The Children Have Done the Hard Part: Remarks on the Launch of the Bernstein Children’s Rights Program

November 17, 2017

By Prof. Michael Kagan
Director, UNLV Immigration Clinic
Delivered Nov. 16, 2017

Yesterday, I learned with the rest of the faculty that UNLV Law may be the most diverse law school in the United States. This is not a surprise. We are the law school for of one the most diverse states in this country, and one of the fastest changing.

It’s also not just a statistic. We are part of this community. In September, when DACA recipients were given less than a month to renew their permits, we more than five dozen Boyd students volunteered, got trained, and started helping people within six days. I had former clinic students, practicing in lots of different areas of law, writing to me, saying – Mike, when you run out of students, call me.     

We are here to thank the Bernsteins, who have literally been lifesavers for our clients. But I want to first acknowledge Dean Dan Hamilton and Rebecca Nathanson, our Associate Dean. Anne Traum, our former Associate Dean, and Fatma Marouf, my former clinic co-director, got this program started. This law school had to go out on a limb to invest in this program – what we are now calling the Bernstein Children’s Rights Program.

I have inherited the role of talking about the children we represent, and the honor of being part of this work. But I want to acknowledge that I don’t do very much of the work. A lot of it is done by our students. Martha Arellano, our legal secretary, our heart and soul, knows every one of our clients, when each of us lawyers only knows some of them. We have two legal fellows – Laura Barrera, who was out last AmeriCorps fellow and now our first Bernstein fellow, and Mayra Salinas. Recently, I’ve noticed a pattern. Most the good things we’ve done have been their ideas. My job is to not get in the way.

I also want to acknowledge that many private lawyers, including many of our alumni, have stepped up to make sure these children do not go undefended. Our partners at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada have, as usual, been quiet heroes for the people who live in Southern Nevada. I want to personally thank Gabrielle Jones and Noah Malgeri and everyone on their teams. We could do very little without you.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this work started with two AmeriCorps fellows, both Boyd grads, Alissa Cooley and Katelyn Leese.

Around the time that Katelyn and Alissa started, I remember hearing a prominent immigration judge interviewed on NPR, saying that kids from Central America had very little chance of winning the legal right to stay in the United States.

But Katelyn and Alissa tried anyway.

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I have been told that my job tonight is to tell you about the work that we do here. I want to warn you that it is sometimes brutal, and I will not cushion it for you. I want you to know.

We have called some of our former clients and gotten their permission to share some of their experiences. I won’t use their names. But what I am going to tell you is real.  To be honest, I wish it were not.

Our clinic does deportation defense. When the federal government wants to deport someone, we represent them. This is not a luxury. Without lawyers, people in deportation proceedings cannot have a fair hearing. Without a lawyer, a person is nearly certain to be deported. With a lawyer, they have as much as 15 times the chance of staying in this country legally.

In Nevada, the majority of people in Immigration Court go through the process alone, without representation, because they can’t afford it. The government has a lawyer. The judge is a lawyer. And the law is impossibly complex. Right now, there are more than 24,000 people in Nevada, many of whom do not speak English, with their entire futures at stake, sometimes their physical safety at stake, alone against the federal government, with nearly no chance.

In our clinic, because of the Bernstein Children’s Rights Program, about three quarters of our clients are children. I want everyone to know that, right now, there are nearly 1500 children in deportation proceedings at the Las Vegas Immigration Court. We only represent a few of them. More than 400 of them still do not have lawyers.

They are mostly teenagers, but our youngest client was three when we started on her case. Their cases take a long time. We often get to hear the boys’ voices crack and get deeper during the time we’re working with them. The middle school kids are sometimes awkward and shy. It’s sometimes hard to get the older boys to talk. Some of our younger clients have made holiday cards for our lawyers. They write “para mi abogada” in crayon or marker.

They’re kids.

But the reason that these kids are here is not appropriate for children at all. Right now in our clinic we have 108 open cases of children who arrived to the United States alone. Some of them know what a dead body looks like after person has been shot or stabbed. Some of the girls have been raped. Some of them have been told that they had to date a gang member, or die. In many cases, their caregivers were told to pay extortion money, or watch their children be hacked to death.

We represented a 10-year-old girl who witnessed her 8-year-old friend kidnapped from a playground. She heard the screams.

Going to the United States is typically not the first plan for the people who try to protect these children. When we interview the kids, we often hear about how they went into hiding for awhile. Their parents moved them from house to house, village to village, hoping for safety. Weeks without sleep. Nights fearing any noise outside the house. But you have to go out to get food. The kids need to go back to school. And in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the MS-13 and the 18th Street gangs are relentless. The threats keep coming.

Eventually, families send their children north. They are called unaccompanied children because they make this journey alone. They travel through Mexico alone. They walk for days alone. They ride on a notorious train called “the beast,” alone. They deal with organized criminals, alone. Until they reach the United States border.

They do this because they are terrified.

But the reason they end up in Las Vegas is usually because they have family here.  In some cases, their parents have been living here and working, sending money home while their children live with relatives.  I want to read you an except from a declaration that one of our clients in this situation gave to us:

I left El Salvador because it was dangerous. My parents were afraid something bad would happen to me. I was afraid too. There were a lot of gang there. ... I really afraid of them because they killed my grandma and my uncle. … I lived with my great-grandmother. … I liked living with her. She would try to protect me from the gangs.  … [But] I was always afraid when I left the house. I was afraid the gangs would steal me. … I heard that the gangs had kidnapped girls and taken out their organs and then stuffed them with money. They would send the parents notes that said, “Thank you for your child’s organs.”

That was told to us by a nine-year-old girl. She was three years younger than my oldest daughter is right now. These are not thoughts or fears than any child should have.

One day, her family told her that she had to go live with her aunts, and then eventually that she had to leave for the United States, because her great-grandmother had died. They told her that her great-grandmother was just very old. But when she got here to Las Vegas and joined her parents, they told her the truth. Her great-grandmother, who had played with her and raised her and tried to protect her, she had been shot and murdered. 

Children should have the right to not live in fear. Children should be able to look to the future.

For these children, the position of the Department of Homeland Security is that they should be sent back to where they came from.

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Back when we started this work, Katelyn and Alissa  -- our first AmeriCorps attorneys -- shared a crowded office. They had the names of all the children they represented written by hand up on a white board.

But after awhile I noticed on one of their walls, little square canvasses with colorful handprints.

They had started getting decisions back on their first cases. And they were winning them. Katelyn and Alissa started having the kids come in to get the good news, talk about next steps, and then they asked them to leave a handprint behind.

More and more handprints went up on Katelyn and Alissa’s wall. The children were going to be able to stay here safely. They would not be sent back to the gangs.

Now, unfortunately, the AmeriCorps program that let us start this work has ended. Every month this year, I’ve been on a national conference call, hearing about how other programs like ours are winding down and stopping work.

That is why this gift matters. We will not be winding down.

I want to leave you with a story, about some of Katelyn’s last clients, last year. It was a group of sisters from El Salvador. The girls eventually came here, and they applied for asylum. On this one, I will spare you the brutal details. I want to tell you about something that happened at the asylum interview.

When the asylum officer interviewed the middle sister, she tried to break the ice by asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The girl was only 13. And she answered, “I want to be a lawyer, so I can help other children.”

That is what we do here. Because of the support from the Bernsteins, we will continue. We know that these cases will only get more difficult. There will be many reasons to doubt if we can win.

But the heart of the matter is this: The children have already done the hard part. They have survived. They have made it here. They all should be safe. They all have dreams for the future.

They should not be alone anymore.

Ed and Claudia Bernstein, thank you for helping to give these kids a fighting shot. And thank you all for your support.